A Tokyo court on Monday upheld a national law that forces couples to use the same surname upon marriage, rejecting claims over its unconstitutionality.
The lawsuit against the central government was brought by Yoshihisa Aono, the 47-year-old president of software development firm Cybozu Inc., and three others seeking a change to the Family Register Law that would give them the right to use their premarital surnames.
The other three plaintiffs, who declined to be named, are a woman in her 20s and a common-law couple.
The four filed the suit with the Tokyo District Court in January 2018, seeking ¥2.2 million in compensation for “psychological suffering.”
In a strong statement, presiding Judge Tetsuro Nakayoshi said that “the law in question does not violate the Constitution” and ordered the plaintiffs to cover the cost of the trial.
The Family Register Law forbids Japanese couples from using different surnames after marriage, although the practice is permitted in marriages between Japanese and foreign nationals.
Divorcees, meanwhile, can choose whether to retain the same surname regardless of nationality.
Many companies and public offices in Japan allow employees to use their pre-marriage names at work but only registered surnames can be used on official documents like passports.
Aono legally took his wife’s surname — Nishihata — upon marriage, but he uses his pre-marriage name for business purposes.
The plaintiffs argued that the law is unconstitutional, in that it fails to ensure the essential equality of the sexes and individual dignity, and demanded the right to use their pre-marriage name through a change to the Family Register Law.
The court concluded, however, the laws in question do not contravene the Constitution as Article 750 of the Civil Code stipulates that a husband and wife shall adopt the same surname upon marriage.
Aono’s lawsuit was not the first to have been rejected in the courtroom. In 2015, five women sought the right to retain their maiden names after marriage but the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Code provision that requires married couples to use the same surname for official matters.
During a news conference following the ruling, Tomoshi Sakka, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, expressed his dissatisfaction with Monday’s ruling.
“It appears the court adopted the government’s stance, which is disappointing,” he said. “I was hoping for some progress but this ruling states the same arguments as those presented in 2015 without any evidence to support their claims.”
He questioned the court’s logic that the Civil Code only allows one name and that a family’s name cannot differ. He also emphasized the contradiction compared with Japanese marrying foreign nationals given that separate names are acceptable in international marriages under the same law.
Sakka believes that amending the Family Register Law is the easiest solution to respond to changes in society where more women now actively participate, he said. But the court argued such regulations need to go in line with the Civil Code.
Aono said he was disappointed that despite the Supreme Court’s suggestion in the 2015 ruling that the disputed issue should be raised in Diet’s debates, the district court’s ruling showed there had been no progress since 2015.
“If you think logically, this law is unconstitutional — and I thought the court would rule based on logical arguments, which has apparently been ignored,” he said.
Aono stressed that the existing law may cause difficulties for many married couples, such as when contacted by a day care center during an emergency, for example, if the parent uses separate names for work and for the child’s day care nursery.
Aono said he had only sought the right to choose one’s last name.
He said that although he was dismayed by the ruling, he was planning to follow up by challenging the court’s arguments and take the fight to a higher court as soon as possible.
“This trial has gained attention from the public and the media, and I believe it has significantly mobilized public opinion,” Aono said, adding that he was hoping the public would follow suit in seeking change through votes in planned local elections.
In its ruling on Monday the court also rejected the compensation claims, saying the government bore no responsibility for the plaintiffs’ psychological suffering given that there had been no violation of their rights guaranteed in the Constitution.